Switch from laser to inkjet printing could aid net zero goals


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May 03, 2023

Switch from laser to inkjet printing could aid net zero goals

New research suggests China could make the biggest total contribution to cutting

New research suggests China could make the biggest total contribution to cutting global printing emissions.

By Victor Vladev

A global switch from laser to inkjet printers could almost halve printing-related energy emissions from current levels by 2025, research suggests.

The report by Japanese printing giant Epson and Dr Tim Forman of the University of Cambridge says that if such a radical transition were to happen, the world would save more than 2,240GWh worth of electricity annually. The subsequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to the amount generated by 280,175 cars over a year.

Epson's Lower the Heat report is part of a joint campaign with National Geographic promoting the protection of the permafrost – ground that consistently remains below zero degrees Celsius. It uses a wide array of datasets to come up with the projection that a worldwide switch to inkjet printers would slash energy emissions from printing to 52.6% of current levels.

The Cambridge University team took into account market research data on printer sales by global region, regional variations in power grid carbon intensity emissions, global analysis on printer energy consumption as well as globally sourced data on greenhouse gas emission trends.

The research reflects heavily on the potential environmental impact of failing to meet the global goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It points to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, suggesting that if the world does not meet the target, it would risk a 40% increase in ecological droughts and instances of extreme heat could become twice as frequent as in 2020.

The Epson/Cambridge study also refers to a report by the Swiss Re Institute, which projects that, in the worst-case scenario of average global temperature rising by 3.2°C by 2050, the world would lose 18.1% of its GDP, compared to a scenario without climate change. For perspective, meeting the net zero target set by the 2021 Paris Agreement would cut the loss in global economic value to just 4.2%.

The UK is listed among the more resilient countries in the face of climate change and rising global temperatures - it ranks 15th among 48 examined countries. Yet it is threatened with flooding along the coasts, more frequent river and flash floods, and increased stress on crop yields driven by longer heatwaves. It also stands to lose between 0.1% and 8.7% of its GDP in the best-case and worst-case scenarios, respectively.

Laser printers consume more electricity than inkjets, with the difference sometimes reaching up to 90% depending on the printer type and model. The mix between the two main printer types varies across geographies and the difference is most pronounced in central and eastern Europe, though the region sees a much lower use of printers than Western Europe, the US or China. The total electricity consumption from printing in Central and Eastern Europe in 2022 was around 318GWh for laser printers and 77 GWh for inkjets, compared to around 913GWh for laser and 500GWh for inkjet printers in Western Europe.

What does sustainability mean in the print industry and what factors should you consider when selecting your print partners?

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Respectively, Central and Eastern Europe stand to gain the most in relative power savings, potentially slashing their electricity consumption from printing by a whopping 76% and reducing related CO2 emissions by almost 71%. China, at the same time, would make a killing in both relative and absolute energy savings if it switches from laser to inkjet printers entirely. The country could cut its printing energy consumption by 69% and reduce its current printing-related CO2 emissions by almost 68%.

While Western Europe stands to make a more modest reduction in relative CO2 emissions with a switch to inkjet printers, it would still cut its printing carbon impact by more than 40%. The United States, which has an almost identical profile to Western Europe in terms of energy used for printing, would make an even bigger emissions cut - over 43% - which can be explained by its more carbon-intensive power generation mix.

The report seeks to emphasise the importance of making all appliances more energy efficient. In a typical UK household, ICT equipment, including printers, accounts for just 8.1% of the total electricity consumption, while cold appliances such as refrigerators gobble twice as much power. Yet, according to the report, if the average electricity used by all appliances globally falls by 25% from 2020 levels by 2030 and shrinks by 40% by 2050, the world should be able to follow the IEA's pathway to meet the cherished net zero target. This scenario envisions a 60% reduction of global appliance energy usage by 2050 from 2020 levels.

Appliance energy use in Europe and the United States is projected to fall by 15-20% by 2030 even without implementing any new policies, but will continue to rise in developing countries, driven by population growth and increasing ownership rates.

While companies have financial, regulatory and reputational incentives to pursue energy efficiency, individual users may not always realise the sway they hold on the transition to a zero-carbon economy, the report says. "Consumers tend to be unaware of the potentially huge difference they can make to their carbon footprint by something as simple as choosing a business inkjet printer instead of a laser printer," Henning Ohlsson, Epson Europe director of sustainability, recently told Sustainable Future News.

To promote a faster transition to net zero or even net positive, the report recommends a three-pronged approach. The first element is technological innovation and it puts the onus on the printing industry to continue to improve the energy efficiency of both the devices it produces and the manufacturing process.

The report also calls for greater international cooperation to encourage the adoption of more efficient devices by both businesses and consumers. This could happen through a mix of regulations and efficiency labelling standards, an approach that proved successful in boosting the adoption of LED and other energy-efficient lighting solutions. Alongside these measures, buyers must change their habits to consider more efficient devices.

While device selection can make a difference to net zero targets, another global trend not pinpointed in the report could be even more beneficial: printing less paper. A report by Brazilian pulp and paper producer Suzano from January 2022 says global use of printing and writing paper will fall from a projected peak of 87 million tonnes in 2021 to 75 million tonnes by 2031.

The widespread switch to hybrid working is likely to accelerate the reduction of printing paper consumption. A McKinsey report from September 2020 found that while global graphic paper demand had been falling significantly in the decade leading up to 2020, the pandemic has led to a drastic reduction in office printing as employees lost access to corporate-grade printers and found they could cope pretty well without them.

What does sustainability mean in the print industry and what factors should you consider when selecting your print partners?

Share your views here and receive a report with the full results.

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